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6th March 2013
Birmingham Museums Trust has been awarded a grant of £75,000 from the Art Fund towards the acquisition of a superb portrait of Erasmus Darwin by Joseph Wright of Derby.
Although not as well known today as his more famous grandson, Charles, Erasmus Darwin (1731 – 1802) was a key figure in the history of the British Enlightenment. He was a gifted physician, botanist, author, poet and inventor, and a founder member of the famous Lunar Society of Birmingham with Matthew Boulton.
Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) is perhaps the artist most closely associated with the Enlightenment and the early Industrial Revolution. Although best known for his dramatic scientific subject works like the iconic Experiment with a Bird in an Air Pump, the core of his output was portraiture which provided him with a steady income. He was also a friend and patient of Darwin’s.
Darwin was 40 years old when this portrait was painted around 1770. His friend and fellow Lunar Man Richard Lovell Edgeworth described him as ‘… a large man, fat, and rather clumsy.’ His face was badly marked by smallpox and he suffered from a bad stammer. In spite of this, his intellect, charisma and good humour made him a hugely likeable character and Wright captures all of this brilliantly in this portrait.
The portrait belonged Erasmus’ elder brother, William Alvey Darwin (1726 – 83), of Elston Hall, Notts, and remained in the family until sold at auction in 2009. It was one of two copies done by Wright. The other copy survives and is now on loan to Darwin College Cambridge.
Chris Rice, Head of Heritage Services at Birmingham Museums Trust commented: ‘This is a hugely important acquisition as both subject and artist were such influential figures in the Midlands Enlightenment. Darwin is particularly important to Birmingham as co-founder of the Lunar Society, and we only have a solitary painting by Wright in our collections. We are enormously grateful to the Art Fund for their generous grant which sets us on our way to reaching our funding target.’
Stephen Deuchar, Art Fund Director said: ‘We are delighted to have been able to make a significant contribution towards the appeal to buy this extremely important portrait. I very much hope that that the remaining funds can be raised to bring it to Birmingham.”
The total cost of the portrait is £275,000. To date Birmingham Museums Trust has secured £105,000 of funding from the Art Fund and the Public Picture Gallery Fund. The trust will look to raise the remainder through applications to a wide range of grant giving organisations and charitable trusts.
To make a donation visit http://www.justgiving.com/hycwxnxrpu/donate or call 0121 303 1966.
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